Luther: On Marriage

As in the last few weeks, we’re continuing on with Luther’s Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This week we’re dealing with Luther’s views on marriage, which, depending on your perspective, are either quite surprising, or not.

In this section, Luther is dealing with the idea of marriage as a sacrament. His basic position is that no, it’s not a sacrament, because sacraments involve “a word of divine promise, to be believed by whoever receives the sign.” There’s no special promise attached to marriage, and it’s not “instituted by God to be a sign of anything,” so it’s not a sacrament. It’s just a thing we do – a good thing, but just a thing. What’s more, Luther says, marriage has “existed from the beginning of the world and is still found among unbelievers,” meaning that it can’t be some special sacrament that’s unique to the church. “The marriages of the ancients were no less sacred than are ours, nor are those of unbelievers less true marriages than those of believers, and yet they are not regarded as sacraments.” That’s… a remarkably open-minded thing to say. It sets up a bunch of interesting little wrinkles in our broader understanding about marriage.

For example, under Luther’s logic, gay marriage seems more or less fine. If non-believers can get married, and have a marriage that exists as authentically and truthfully as a Christian’s, then marriage doesn’t really mean anything within the specific confines of Christianity. Again: if two unbelievers can have a complete, authentic, and true marriage, without ever once even casting a thought in the direction of Christianity, then marriage can be understood and explained – by Christians – without reference to the faith. And at that point – whoopsie, there’s no real reason to stop gay people getting married. Luther himself never would have accepted that reasoning, but it follows logically enough from what he’s saying.

Luther does go on to talk about the union between man and woman as a metaphor or “type” of the relationship between Christ and the church, but, like, ehh. If you’re not invested in the idea of complementarianism, or any other misogynistic nonsense, then you sort of already have to abandon that perceived hierarchy of man and woman in a relationship. Marriage stops being a symbol of Christ and the church when you hold to gender equality. That is, if you’re already committed to gender equality, you’re not losing anything new by affirming gay relationships. The symbol is already gone. Some Christians will of course see things from the other side, and argue that gender equality is incoherent specifically because the hierarchy of man and woman is a symbol of the hierarchy between Christ and the church. They will argue that we’re rejecting the principles of biblical authority by refusing to acknowledge this basic symbolism. And, I mean, ehh. I think it’s easy enough to find symbols of things if you look for them. I’ve heard people argue that Eve was lesser because she was created second – that the order of creation is proof of the order of preeminence. The minister at hand quickly retorted that by that logic, the frog is superior to both sexes, being created before either. It’s really at the point where your tendency is to laugh and ignore people, rather than spend a great deal of time debunking nonsense.

The one thing I will say is that it’s interesting how the function of authority has been reversed. Originally the hierarchy between man and woman in a marriage was read as a symbol of the hierarchy between Christ and the church. Now people are trying to preserve the hierarchy between man and woman not for its own sake, but that it might continue to serve as a symbol of something else. Indeed, they even treat the integrity of the hierarchy between God and the church as dependent on the sustained integrity of this symbol. It seems sort of like trying to preserve the institution of slavery just because someone said that we’re slaves to God. If black people can’t be literal slaves, how will they remember to be metaphorical slaves? Augustine at one point refers to the “miserable slavery of the soul,” where people are more bonded to the letter of the law than to relationship with God. Elsewhere in this text, Luther talks about “how, having long ago lost the grace of the sacrament, we contend for the sign, which is the lesser.” It seems like the same basic issue. One would have thought that the supremacy of God could survive women becoming doctors and lawyers.

Luther’s wider meditation on marriage serves to illustrate this general point. The whole way through, he holds up a bunch of different rules and laws that were instituted by the church, squints at them, and goes ‘Yeah, nah.’ “Besides this, no man had the right to frame such laws, and Christ has granted to Christians a liberty which is above all laws of men, especially where a law of God conflicts with them. Thus it is said in Mark 2, ‘The Son of man is lord also of the sabbath,’ and ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.'” The hierarchy of marriage might serve as a type of the relationship between God and the church, but it’s an allegory that belongs to us. When we figure out that it’s not healthy to impose that hierarchy between men and women, we can throw the allegory out without losing anything important. As 1 Corinthians has it, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Let’s not get hung up on the gender hierarchy thing. Surely we can see bigger things than that.

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